The Kobe region in Japan is internationally renowned for its exceptionally high quality (and equally as expensive) cuts of beef, but soon the region’s local rugby team could be the talk of the world thanks to how quickly they’re developing into a titanic force.
The Kobelco Steelers, based in Kobe and owned by Kobe Steel, were the first-ever winners of the Top League, Japan’s national competition.
The tournament kicked off in 2003 and was contested by twelve teams scattered across Japan – all owned by some of biggest and most well-known companies in Japan, including the Toshiba, Ricoh, Suntory and Yamaha.
The Steelers finished on top of the table come the season’s end and were crowned Top League champions – but it was going to be a long time between drinks for the people of Kobe.
The league has expanded throughout the years – both in size and scope, with sixteen teams now taking part. Whilst the tournament has remained only semi-professional, the calibre of players has changed considerably.
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That’s no more obvious than at the Steelers, where superstars from across the globe have now come together to form one of the fiercest sides in the competition.
Kobelco have had their fair share of once-internationals throughout the years, with men such as former All Black Ron Cribb and former Springbok Peter Grant becoming fan favourites.
Daisuke Ohata also played his club rugby for the Steelers – a man most people will know as the fastest player in EA’s Rugby 06 and Rugby 08 titles.
In the real world, however, Ohata holds the record for most tries scored at Test level, with 69 scored over 58 appearances for the Japanese national side. Admittedly, a big chunk of those tries were bagged against the likes of Hong Kong and Korea – but the record still stands.
Despite a smattering of international talent, the Kobe-based side weren’t able to consistently challenge the best teams in the Top League – the likes of Toshiba Brave Lupus and, more recently, Suntory Sungoliath and Panasonic Wild Knights.
Those three sides have now shared fourteen out of the Top League’s sixteen titles to date.
Meanwhile, the Steelers were just lucky to sneak into playoffs, often finishing 5th or 6th, and usually getting dealt to by those bigger teams when they did manage to get to the finals.
Then came 2018, where the club went through a considerable overhaul.
Out went head coach Jim McKay, who had been at the helm for two years. McKay, who was an assistant coach with Ewen McKenzie for the Reds and the Wallabies, had overseen a 4th and a 6th place finish for the Steelers – fairly par for the course, but evidently not quite what Kobelco were looking for.
In came one of the greatest coaching minds in the world, Wayne Smith, in a new role as Director of Rugby.
One of France's biggest clubs wants to recruit one of the big Japan stars from the 2019 World Cup
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 15, 2020
To some, he’s the Professor; to others, he’s the Oracle, but whatever way you look at it, Smith is going to help take your club places.
His CV is unrivalled: Two Super Rugby titles as head coach of the Crusaders, two World Cup wins and an 85% win record as assistant coach of the All Blacks, and two Super Rugby titles as Dave Rennie’s right-hand man at the Chiefs.
Alongside Smith came new head coach Dave Dillon, who had most recently been an assistant with another Top League side, the NEC Green Rockets.
It wasn’t just the management team that got an overhaul, however.
The @Sunwolves have once again opted for a number of foreign players in their @SuperRugby squad – and it's not going to do them any favours with SAANZAR, writes @TomVinicombe. https://t.co/rjILxrltIB#SuperRugby #Sunwolves #Awoooo
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 27, 2019
Highlanders Tom Franklin and Richard Buckman, as well as sharpshooter Hayden Parker, all joined the Steelers’ cause.
They also made a handy acquisition in the form of one Dan Carter.
Results were immediate, with Kobelco going undefeated throughout the 2018-2019 regular season – their only blemish being a 26-all draw with Toyota Verblitz, the club that recently brought in both Steve Hansen and Kieran Read.
It wasn’t just the newbies who were carrying the load though.
Expats Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Vant Leven, Grant Hattingh, Fraser Anderson and co-captain Andy Ellis played a big part in the Steelers’ success, whilst local talents Isieli Nakajima (who made a massive impact at the 2019 World Cup for Japan), Hiroshi Yamashita and Ryohei Yamanaka all had major roles in the successful season.
The likes of Carter and Buckman – alongside the direction of Smith and Dillon – just gave Kobelco that extra edge they needed to take them from the nearly-men of the Top League to table toppers.
After the successful round-robin, expectations were rightfully high in Kobe – but the Steelers would still have to navigate a finals pool comprising former champions Suntory and Panasonic.
As it turned out, even the slightest bit of trepidation Kobelco fans may have had was completely unnecessary.
The Steelers scorched through the playoffs, crushing the Ricoh Black Rams 63-27, avenging their earlier draw against Toyota 31-19, then ending 14 long years of heartache by absolutely demolishing previous champions Suntory 55-5.
@TomVinicombe had the opportunity to talk to former Waikato, Chiefs and New Zealand player @RichieKahui in the lead up to the World Cup – here's the final piece on the devastating defender. https://t.co/C7OthtcdPh#AllBlacks @ChiefsRugby @WaikatoRugby @AllBlacks
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 24, 2019
Just to really assert their dominance, Kobelco then went on to win the 2019-2020 Top League pre-season competition, the Top League Cup, belting the Kubota Spears 43-7 in the final.
Kobelco haven’t rested on their laurels, however, and made some handy acquisitions in the off-season.
Their most well-publicised pick-up, of course, is All Black Brodie Retallick – arguably the best second-rower in world rugby – who will spend the next two Top League season in Kobe.
The mammoth man has made an instant impact with the Steelers, running in for a try against Canon Eagles in last weekend’s 50-16 drubbing to kick off the year.
Unlike the 2019 round-robin, which was heavily condensed due to the Rugby World Cup, the Top League will run for a full 15-week regular season this year, which will give Retallick, Carter and co plenty of opportunities to show off their talents.
The Top League has gone to another level.
This is frankly silly.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 17, 2019
Whilst it would be entirely premature to suggest Kobelco will canter away to another title, it’s hard to look past Wayne Smith and Dave Dillon’s impressively put together squad.
From spending over a decade flailing around the middle of the table to recording an undefeated season, the Kobelco Steelers have paved the way for a new era of domination.
The Top League’s first and most-recent champions are certainly the team to beat in 2020.
Kobelco’s upcoming match with Yamaha Jubilo will be streamable live on RugbyPass for all subscribers at 1PM JST on Saturday, January 18th.
WATCH: Check out all the highlights from the first round of the 2020 Top League season.
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